Intellectual property laws were originally designed to protect the rights of writers, graphic designers, coders, inventors and other types of content creators. The laws that are meant to protect intellectual property—not unlike pretty much every other law known to man—can, and are, taken advantage of. Sometimes, it comes down to the almighty dollar. Other times, it’s about politics and investors. Unfortunately, STEM fields aren’t immune to any of these pitpalls.
Where there is money to be made, there will always be people waiting to pounce. Most recently, there was Martin Shkreli: the “entrepreneur” who jacked up the price of AIDS/HIV medication 5,000% percent literally overnight, but he isn’t alone.
Here’s a look at some of the strangest and most absurd intellectual property abuses in the history of science:
Designer Trademarks Pi (+ .):
If you didn’t hear about it, in 2014, the internet unleashed its wrath on a New York designer who filed a trademark application for the pi symbol followed by a period. Not only was his application approved, but the man, Paul Ingrisano, from “Pi Productions Corp,” took it a step further—issuing a series of cease and desist orders.
That, in and of itself, shouldn’t be surprising. After all, no matter how you feel about giving any one person the exclusive rights to any one symbol, no one could blame a person for protecting their intellectual property. However, Ingrisano was reaching far beyond the law; He threatened legal action against people who weren’t explicitly using his trademark. Rather, the designs—many of which, predate his 2012 application by several years—simply used the pi symbol in some capacity.
“It has been brought to our client’s attention that your business, Zazzle Com/AKA Zazzle Inc., has been using the mathematical symbol ‘pi,’ referred to herein as the ‘PI trademark,’ in association with the marketing or sale of your products or of products offered through your services. We have evidence of your unlawful products to preserve as evidence. Accordingly, you are hereby directed to CEASE AND DESIST ALL COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT.”
Zazzle, the site that received the notices, pulled all pi-related merchandise temporarily, but the products were restored following an international outcry (including a few intellectual property lawyers themselves). In typical douche fashion, Ingrisano followed up by saying, “I think most of the people who are angry are just mad they didn’t come up with it first.”
To reiterate, the vast majority of the “infringing” content just had the pi symbol on it somewhere. Very few of the designs were followed by the period, but again, his lawyer justified the threat by suggesting that the copyright laws are open to interpretation. In this instance, Ingrisano can sue because the law prohibits others from creating works that are so similar to the copywrite owner’s, other people might confuse the two.
The problem, of course, is that this is illogical nonsense. If you are concerned that people will rip your designs off, try coming up with something a little more original. Better yet, don’t try to claim ownership of a symbol that predates each and every trademark act, not to mention, the “trademark owner” himself.
To be completely fair, it’s unlikely that Ingrisano actually thought the application would go through. Even if he was entirely serious, most of the blame should be placed on the trademark office as a whole for granting it in the first place.
Still no word yet on whether or not the trademark will stand after all the negative publicity, but it may prove important in the sense that it could eventually lead to changes in copyright, trademark, patent and intellectual property laws.
As a fun aside fact, This isn’t the only time pi made headlines. If you recall, many, many years ago, Indiana legislation attempted get the courts to formally declare that pi is equal to 3.2. Thankfully. they failed.
Patented DNA Sequences:
Of all of the things that could potentially cause intellectual property issues, this one might be the most shocking. Over the years, a few biological research facilities have managed to acquire patents for certain DNA sequences—specifically those linked to cancer of the ovaries and/or the breasts (we’ll get to that in a minute). Other patented DNA sequences include things ranging from cells and viruses to seeds.
It may seem obvious that DNA (and other living biological materials) shouldn’t be able to be trademarked or patented. After all, they are unique and intangible, but when there is lucrative money to be made, logic and reason don’t always prevail.
Such claims stifle progress in gene research, which was rectified when the courts finally ruled that “naturally occurring” DNA sequences can’t be patented, yet genetically modified sequences can (that sounds like a decent compromise, even if it goes against the nature of scientific discovery).
Genomes are another hot ticket. According to a paper published in the journal of “Science,” approximately 20 percent of the genomes found in the human body have been patented (some 4,000 of 24,000 genes) already. Those numbers were given in 2005! A decent example would be the organism that was created to digest crude oil (something that could have a huge effect on wildlife in the event of oil spills). After initially being turned down, the patent was granted on the grounds that the “micro-organisms being alive is without legal significance for purposes of the patent law.”
I would argue we walk a slippery slope when we allow people to “own” living things, even if they wouldn’t have entered this world without the assistance of a lab. This next one shows that there is a fine line and people have no problem trampling all over it.
Companies Patient GENES:
Within recent years, science has made great leaps in breast cancer prevention, and this can ultimately be traced back to the isolation of a gene that has been linked to the deadly disease. BRCA1 and BRCA2—the genes in question—are specifically responsible for tumor suppression, along with the regulation of cell growth.
They can be used to determine whether or not a person is at a high risk of contracting breast or ovarian cancer, which can give women the opportunity to take preventative measures. Who knows how many lives it has already saved, and will in the future.
Many found to have the mutated genes have chosen to have mastectomies (with Angelina Jolie among them), lessening the odds that they will be among the 12.4 percent of women in the U.S. alone that will ultimately contract breast cancer over the course of their lives
In yet another glaring example of greed, Myriad Genetics filed patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, essentially allowing them, and them alone, to study the genes and work out ways of preventing these mutations.
To be completely clear, BRCA1 & 2 might hold the key to stopping breast cancer once and for all, but one company actively prevented it. Moreover, they charge outrageous sums of money not just for other scientists to work with the genes, but for people to have their own genes tested (and that’s not all, not by a long shot. They literally launched dozens of lawsuits against researchers that violated their ‘patent.’ Illegal? No. Immoral? Probably)
However, this example has a mildly satisfying end. In 2013, the supreme court tossed out the patent, saying that Myriad Genetics “did not create or alter any of the genetic information,” thus their claim to own the gene is dubious at best. Since then, the cost of genetic testing decreased significantly, going from $4,000 dollars down to $1,200.
UPDATE (10/7/15): In a monumental victory, the highest court has ruled once and for all that the BRCA1 gene isn’t a “patentable invention.” Read more about the decision here.
People Patent Non-People Lifeforms:
If genes and DNA sequences weren’t bad enough, the U.S. patent office one-upped both of them by issuing several patents for LIVING organisms. In one of the more controversial examples, an American received a patent for the Ayahuasca vine—a plant found in the Amazon rain-forest that’s known for its medicinal properties—under the guise that he had developed a method that forces it to reproduce asexually.
The patent for this particular plant is made worse by the fact that it is considered sacred by people who are indigenous to their stomping grounds. Moreover, the plant is used in conjunction with another plant containing DMT (or dimethyltryptamine)— a hallucinogen that is ILLEGAL in the United States (though the laws aren’t so black and white, at least where the plants themselves are concerned)—to brew a special kind of tea.
In what shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone, the patent was challenged in a court of law in 1999, when someone pointed out the obvious—that it’s absurd to grant one person the right to sell and breed a plant that has grown in the wild for thousands, perhaps millions, of years. After lots of back and forth, the patent was thrown out on the grounds “that the plant was not distinctive or novel,” only for the patent to be reinstated following an appeal. As of 2003, the patent held by the entrepreneur, Loren Miller, expired.
Again, the ayahusca vine wasn’t the only living thing people have successfully patented. The second has far more negative implications, being that it doesn’t involve a plant found in some far-flung corner of the world. By that, I’m referring to the OncoMouse controversy: a genetically modified lab mouse that was created to test cancer drugs.
Specifically, OncoMice were modified with cancer-causing genes, known as oncogenes, that, when activated, turn the creatures into incubators for certain types of cancers. As such, they were a huge revelation in the field of cancer research. You would think that would be a good thing, right?
Well, kind of. You can probably predict why.
Its commercial value drove Harvard to file a patent for the oncomouse. After striking an agreement with E.I. DuPont (the source of most of their funding) over licensing, DuPont issued tons of restrictions on the usage of the creatures, whilst charging other institutions ridiculous sums of money to test their drugs on them (some have suggested thatthe restrictions were likely put in place to keep these researchers from developing their own OncoMouse-equivalent, which seems absurd given their original purpose).
Despite the patent no longer being active (at least for now), it still brings up many interesting (and very troubling) questions about the nature of patent laws, while driving home the point that sometimes, profits matter more than the research, and the people researchers hope to help (in my eyes, at least. I won’t presume to know how the rest of you feel).
The Man Who Claims to Own the Moon (and Most of the Universe):
In perhaps the most gumption-filled claim, Dennis Hope has not only declared himself the King of the moon, but he has managed to make a bunch of people—reportedly including George H. W. Bush, George Lucas, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan—believe his credentials are legit (and that the “Lunar Embassy Corporation” isn’t a title he totally made up).
The best part? He has supposedly raked in a multi-million dollar fortune by selling more than 600 MILLION acres of property on the moon and on Mars (He also claims ownership over ALL of the planets in our solar system and their respective moons). Capitalism! (I guess)
I’m sure many of you are wondering—just as I did when I first learned about Hope’s business model—“Who gave this guy the right to claim ownership over the moon, let alone sell off fractions of it to gullible members of the public?” Well apparently, no one gave him the right. He just took it. Moreover, other than skeptics, he has faced little opposition from anyone over his proclamation of ownership. In fact, you might also be surprised to learn about the legalities of his scheme.
While going through a contentious divorce, Hope was looking for a way to make money, when he saw the moon hanging in the sky; looking up and wondering “Who owns outer-space?”This research led him the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967. One single sentence caught his eye, which said “No nation by appropriation shall have sovereignty or control over any of the satellite bodies.”
This essentially means that no one *government* can stake a claim to celestial objects or their natural resources, yet Hope saw this as a loophole just waiting to be exploited, as individual people do not fit under that umbrella. With nothing to lose, he decided to send a letter to the United Nations, telling them of his intent to claim ownership of, and sell parts of, the moon. Hope never heard back, so he lived up to his word.
No government has challenged him yet, but they probably haven’t because the whole thing is so absurd. Alas. We might never know.